Retablos: Attitudes of Gratitude Abound

By Joseph Toone

When my children were young, evening prayers settled on their litanies of what good things happened for them that day. I asked, “Why say thank you?” and their rote response of “Because more good things come your way,” followed it.

Saying “thank you” in San Miguel de Allende involves gratitude and art. Retablos, or votive paintings, were originally small paintings done on tin to express gratitude. Retablos contain three parts:

1. A written description of the miraculous event, such as a sick child getting well, falling off a horse and walking away, surviving a flash flood.

2. An artistic representation of the miraculous event.

3. An image of the sacred person who helped.

These license plate-sized tins of folk art were then placed at the church as concrete examples of God’s love. Commissioned artists called “retableros” or “retablistas” did most of the retablos.

Over time, new retablos replaced older ones and priests had to remove some. Often the removed retablos can be found in stores across town at varying qualities and costs.

Today in San Miguel, retablos are still painted and placed in the church in Valle de Maiz, historically an indigenous neighborhood. The saints and virgins providing the miracles haven’t changed, but the nature of the miracles have. They now include immigration issues, Internet bullying, prison time, and traffic accidents.

The artistic representation has also changed. You can frequently find retablos done in fabric outside the Organic Market. Often the retablos are then sewn together to form bedspreads. Who wouldn’t want to sleep under the warmth of multiple miracles?

In spiritual terms, these paintings provide a way of expressing devotion to a favored icon. In cultural terms, they represent one of the few means by which anyone can give public expression to their anxieties, fears, and sufferings that have been relieved.

Both Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo co-llected retables, and they drew inspiration from them for their own art and faith. Perhaps you can too.

Joseph Toone is the number one rated local guide by TripAdvisor for providing tours on culture. He provides tours Thursday and Friday at 9am from outside the Oratorio church. To learn more about faith and culture in SMA visit


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